The scale of “sugar addiction” in England and Wales has been laid bare in data showing that 170 children and teenagers a day are having operations in NHS hospitals to remove multiple teeth that have been rotted by sugar.
There were 42,911 multiple tooth extraction operations in patients under the age of 18 in 2016/17 according to analysis of NHS statistics by the Local Government Association, which represents English councils.
This represents an increase of 17 per cent on the numbers four years ago, with a total bill for the operations – which have to take place in hospital under anaesthetic – of £36.2m.
Dental health leaders said that ministers should be ashamed of the figures, and said a lack of funding for the Government’s flagship oral health programme means it is only reaching “a few thousand children”.
The amounts of sugar in food and drink
“These statistics are a badge of dishonour for health ministers, who have failed to confront a wholly preventable disease,” said British Dental Association (BDA) chair, Mick Armstrong.
The BDA says England is lagging behind Scotland and Wales by failing to have a dedicated child oral health programme.
It adds that the flagship “Starting Well” policy, for children under five at high risk of dental problems, had no additional funding attached and is only running in 13 local authorities.
Mr Armstrong added: “This short-sightedness means just a few thousand children stand to benefit from policies that need to be reaching millions.”
The total bill for tooth extractions since 2012 topped £165m, and the figures show numbers spiked again in 2016/17, despite a drop in the number of cases the previous year – when there were 40,800 operations. The LGA’s community wellbeing board chair, councillor Izzi Seccombe, said: “The fact that, due to the severity of the decay, 170 operations a day to remove teeth in children and teenagers have to be done in a hospital is alarming and also adds to current pressures on the NHS.
“This concerning trend shows there is an urgent need to introduce measures to curb our sugar addiction which is causing children’s teeth to rot.”
The LGA is calling for councils to be given local spending powers for some of the money raised through the Government’s sugar tax.
“Reducing sugar isn’t just about tackling obesity, it’s about this important issue of dental health,” Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, and chair of the Commons Health Committee, told The Independent.
“We’ve known for a while that the single biggest cause for children being admitted to hospital is to have rotten teeth removed. It’s a major cause of health inequality.”
A new Government tax on sugary soft drinks has already seen manufacturers start changing their formulas to avoid the levy, even before the law takes effect in April.
While the reformulation of Irn Bru caused fans to stockpile the iconic Scottish drink, Dr Wollaston said she hopes the Government will keep gradually extending sugar controls.
“We saw it with salt, it took ten years to gradually reduce the levels in British food but now you only really notice when you go abroad, somewhere where they don’t have these restrictions on how salty food is,” Dr Wollaston added.
“I’d like to see the levy extended to these sugary milk-based products and smoothies, which are currently exempt, and are often pitched as healthy but have very high sugar levels.”
These cases all took place in hospital because they are too complex for a dentist, and even NHS officials agreed tooth decay is an “epidemic”.
An NHS England spokesperson said: “NHS dental care for children is free, and tooth decay is preventable, but eating sugary food and drinks is driving this unfortunate and unnecessary epidemic of extractions.
“NHS England is working with the dental profession, local authorities and health providers and has developed Starting Well – a campaign targeted at high-need communities to help children under five see their dentist earlier and improve their dental health.
“In supporting the ‘Dental Check by One’ campaign, NHS England is working with the dental profession to help an additional 70,000 more children see a dentist before they reach their second birthday.”